Originally published in the November 16, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
There’s a certain theatrical flair to meeting Tim McGraw at a turn-of-the-century slaughterhouse in a historic industrial area of Nashville to talk about his new album, Damn Country Music. Sure, the 100-plus-year-old brick compound has been repurposed for get-togethers of this sort, but the rusty reciprocating saws and meat hooks that still pepper the meatpacking plant send an ominous message. Perhaps Tim just wants to chew the fat . . . or cut through it.
Fortunately, Tim flashes a smile instead of a bone saw when the sit-down begins. In fact, he’s cool, calm and collected as he relaxes on a rustic stool with his hands folded, casually dressed in a pair of jeans, form-fitting V-neck sweater, well-worn black cowboy boots and his customary black cowboy hat. His morning workout is out of the way, he’s managed to get a bite to eat and he doesn’t have to sit under any hot television lights for this interview. It’s good to be Tim McGraw right now. That’s the myopic view. Big picture-wise? Well, he’s got a beautiful wife, Faith Hill, three happy teenage daughters, a highly successful country music—and acting—career and a new album. It’s actually damn good to be Tim McGraw right now. And the good is something Tim likes to pay forward.
Take, for example, “Buy Me a Boat” singer Chris Janson, a guy who has been grinding away in Music City for more than a decade. Not only did Tim make “Truck Yeah”—a tune Chris co-wrote—a Top 10 hit in 2012, but he also recorded Chris’ co-penned song, “How I’ll Always Be,” on his new album, Damn Country Music. But it doesn’t stop there. Tim also lent his vocals to a duet of “Messin’ With Jesus” on Chris’ debut album that dropped earlier this month, and, on Tim’s Shotgun Rider Tour this past summer, he invited Chris onstage during a stop in Nashville to sing “Buy Me a Boat.”
The way Tim sees it, he’s just continuing the long tradition of established stars lending a helping hand to deserving up-and-comers. Johnny Cash did it for Kris Kristofferson. Glen Campbell did it for Alan Jackson. Joe Diffie and The Gatlin Brothers did it for Tim.
“There were a couple of people who believed in me early on in my career,” says Tim. “Joe Diffie was someone who took me under his wing a little bit like [with Chris]. And The Gatlin Brothers—Rudy and Steve—I did some shows with them early in my career before I had a record deal. We were playing some military bases. Larry [Gatlin] wasn’t with them, just Rudy and Steve, and I was opening for them, playing with their band, and they asked me to sing a few songs with them each night as they kept going. Those guys believed in me from the beginning. They were always on my side. Every time they talked, they would say good things about me. Early on in my career, they really believed in me and helped me out.”
Even though it’s been more than 20 years since Tim established himself as a country music force with his sophomore No. 1 album, Not a Moment Too Soon, in 1994, he still recalls what it was like to scratch and claw—pick and sing—to get noticed, pay the bills and eek out a living. Tim remembers those days, but he also relishes them in a way that’s contrary to a lot of others who bitch and moan about their plight. It wasn’t all about the struggle. It was about the journey.
“I sold everything I had, bought a Greyhound ticket and moved to Nashville [from Monroe, La.] in 1989,” says Tim. “I probably wouldn’t have moved to town without the encouragement of my friends and college roommates (see sidebar). They really pushed me to do it. I played just like everyone else—I played for tips around town. Me and Tracy [Lawrence] and Kenny [Chesney] used to run around together and play these clubs and try to win these singing contests for $50 that was based on the crowd voting. But I didn’t’ look at it as a struggle. I was young and single and shared apartments and slept on friends’ couches. I didn’t look at it as so terribly of a struggle back then. I was drinking beer and eating Krispy Kream donuts at 3 a.m.”
It’s an amusing walk down memory lane to hear Tim talk about scarfing down donuts in the wee hours of a beer-infused morning. More than a quarter of a century later, it still brings a smile to his face. Today, other things besides jelly-filled delicacies bring a smile to his face, like his wife, Faith, and daughters Gracie, Maggie and Audrey, not to mention his new album, Damn Country Music. Plus, he’s so damn fit now—like a piece of sinewy beef from this slaughterhouse circa 1906—it’s hard to imagine 47-year-old Tim would even consider eating a donut. So, family and music it is. And they just happen to intersect on Damn Country Music, most notably in the first track, a Celtic-imbued ditty featuring his oldest daughter Gracie on vocals.
“When I recorded that song, I just imagined playing it live,” says Tim. “That’s all I was thinking about the whole time I was recording it, how was it going to sound live? What’s this going to feel like live? And I couldn’t wait to play it live. The first time I ever played it live was with Gracie. We played it live in Nashville, the first time it had been played in front of people. I never intended for her to be on the record or this song, but after I did my vocal on it and we were mixing it, I was laying in bed thinking about it for about a week, and all I could hear was Gracie’s voice. Every time I would lay down, that song would run through my head and all I could hear was Gracie’s voice on it. So it took me a while to get up the nerve to ask her because she’s way cooler than I am. I am not cool to her. I’m probably cooler than I think I am to her, but not anything she’s going to let me know about. But it took me a while to get up the nerve to ask her. I asked her, and she said, ‘Yeah.’ We went to the studio and she sang it great, but I wanted her to laugh at the end of it, and she didn’t want to do that, so my biggest job was being in there trying to be goofy to make her laugh, and it worked.”
It definitely worked. Daddy Tim must be funnier than he is cool. However, the remainder of the Tim-loving world probably thinks he’s pretty cool, and that comes across in the rest of the new album, from the stellar single “Top of the World” (see sidebar), to the reflective title track to the back-to-back-to-back songs that feature Hank Williams references (see sidebar).
“I wanted to make a record that felt good to me,” says Tim. “I wanted to make a record that—after 25 years, and this is my 14th album—showed the entire atmosphere of all the music I’ve made throughout my career. Certainly, it has a lot of what’s going on in country radio, there’s some elements of it, stuff I’m influenced by. But I know who I am as an artist, and that’s one of the benefits of being around for a long time, just getting to know yourself as an artist and know what road you’re on. But I’m also open. I have an open heart and an open soul to music. So I can go down the road I’m on, roll my windows down and if I hear something I like or see something that’s—I don’t want to say trendy—but something that’s going on, then I like to incorporate a little bit of that into the core of what I do. So I think this album has a little bit of that and what has influenced me now—pop and country, some of the stuff that I hear on the radio and I like—but it’s also got some of the stuff that made me want to move to town and want to make records. And I think that’s the theme that carries throughout this whole album. There’s just the passion for the music that I make that’s in there.”
The album’s most powerful and pensive reminder of Tim’s aforementioned passion is the last verse in the last song—a Lori McKenna-penned tune, “Humble and Kind”—where he sings When you get where you’re goin’, don’t forget turn back around / And help the next one in line / Always stay humble and kind.”
“That’s the kind of person you always want to try to be, and that’s the person I’ve always tried to be,” says Tim. “I certainly haven’t always succeeded at it at times. That’s what I love about that song—it’s probably one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever recorded, and I think, as a father, that’s what you want to tell your kids and that’s what you want your kids to live by. It’s certainly something you heard as a kid growing up that you were sort of taught, and as you get older, you can get something out of that song, too. I think kindness is something that we probably all innately have, something that we are born with, even people who aren’t so kind probably think they are being kind, or they feel like they are kind, or they want to be kind. Humility is something you have to work at. And it’s something you have to be a good steward of, and you have to work hard at and remind yourself daily. I think as a song
in this day and age, certainly in the times that we live, ‘Humble and Kind’ needs to be heard.”
And that’s the meat of the message that Tim has cut through the fat to deliver.
Sidebar 1: Higher Learning
“The first summer of my freshman year at college [Northeast Louisiana University], I went to a pawnshop and pawned my high school ring and bought a guitar,” says Tim. “My grandfather actually went back to the store and bought my ring a few weeks later without me knowing about it. Over that summer—I’d played a little in high school just goofing off, but I was mainly concentrating on sports in high school—I spent that summer learning how to play guitar. I learned 50 songs, and in the fall I started playing for tips, but during that summer [my college roommates] were hiding my guitar from me because I was terrible. But they hid it as a joke I think, because every time girls would come around, they’d go grab my guitar and bring it back to me and say, ‘Hey, play some songs for us.’ I was like, ‘You want me to play to get you laid, but you’ll hide my guitar when I’m practicing [laughs]?’”
Sidebar 2: Mission Accomplished
Tim McGraw is one of the few artists who can literally say his music is “out of this world.” In August, Damn Country Music’s lead single, “Top of the World,” mirrored its title when Tim, a self-proclaimed “space freak,” sent a 15-second video clip of the song to NASA and the International Space Station via Twitter for a galaxy-wide debut.
“I am a space freak,” says Tim. “I always had this dream as a kid of being up in space. I’m fascinated by astronauts—the knowledge they have, the ability that they have and the brainpower they have to do what they do. [Sending] ‘Top of the World’ to them was a connection for me, and to have them [play it] was pretty cool.”
Sidebar 3: I See the Light
Damn Country Music has three songs in a row—“Losin’ You,” “How I’ll Aways Be” and the title track—that have Hank Williams references in the lyrics. While it’s been more than 60 years since Hank’s death, that hasn’t stopped the current crop of hit songwriters from paying homage to the Hillbilly Shakespeare.
“How about that?” says Tim, as he steeples his fingers together excitedly at the allusions. “It wasn’t intentional that we recorded all those songs with the references, but it was intentional to put them in that order [tracks 2, 3 and 4]. And they’re all distinctively different songs, that’s what I like about it as well. It shows in a lot of ways the influence Hank Williams has had on country music—when one artist can do three songs in a row on one album that are distinctively different songs and distinctly different styles and have a Hank Williams reference in all of them, that’s pretty cool.”